A new book by York railway historian Susan Major looks at how women stepped into the breach to keep the railways running when their men went off to the Second World War. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

THE Second World War was a dreadful conflict which engulfed the world, tore apart nations and alliances, engendered extreme acts of cruelty and inhumanity - and led to the deaths of more than 60 million people.

We must fervently hope never to see its like again.

But, just as with the First World War a generation earlier, the second war also led to fundamental shifts in the established order of things. It virtually put paid to the age of deference here, ushering in a new, more egalitarian Britain characterised by the NHS and social welfare. And just as the relationship between the classes was changed for good, so in a way was the relationship between the sexes.

With millions of men called up for service, it fell to women to keep many of Britain's vital industries and services running: among them, the railways.

"There had of course been women already working in some areas of the railway, such as in clerical, cleaning and catering jobs," writes historian Susan Major in her new book Female Railway Workers in World War II. "But in wartime, many women were employed in the kind of work which was completely new to females, working as porters and guards, and in maintenance and workshop operations."

In her new book, railway historian Susan, who is retired and lives in York, sets out to tell their stories.

York Press:

Her book looks at the challenges the women faced in working with men and learning their new jobs; their memories of running a wartime service and surviving air raids; the way they dealt with American and Canadian allies; and how they felt when the men came back and wanted their old jobs back.

It draws upon personal accounts gleaned from the National Archive of Railway Oral History, as well as other archives and previously published work. And it is all the richer for allowing the voices of some of those pioneering women to shine through.

Nellie Nelson was a porter for LNER based at York during the war. "On a night you got a job as a blackout attendant on trains," she recalls in transcripts Susan uses extensively in her book. "You had to go up to Darlington and back again and you had to go up and down the train to see that it'd got all the curtains down.

"We had a uniform, yes, and a tin hat. It were more or less a replica of the man's uniform. We got an oil lamp each if we wanted one, but I didn't bother. I used to take me flash lamp. If you were in a van where there wasn't a light you could see what the parcels were."

Working on the railways gave her a greater freedom than she'd had when working at Rowntree's before the war, Nellie admitted. "You could go and and do your job, where at Rowntree's ... it was all piece work, and if you ever did the number, they put the rate up."

But being a railway porter brought its own challenges and surprises. On one occasion she opened the door of a train which had just arrived in York on its way south - only to find it was the royal train carrying the King and Queen (King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother). "And I opened the door and I said just 'All right, ma'am?'," Nellie recalls. "And she said 'Yes, love, thanks.'. That's the Queen, says 'Yes, love, thanks'."

Laura Scott, meanwhile, worked as a sawdust bagger at the York carriageworks. She didn't really know what happened to the sawdust she was bagging, which seems to have been a by-product of the carriage-building process. But that didn't stop her relishing the work.

"It were dusty. But didn't matter," she recalls. "It was heavy bags, you know... That's all we did, all day. Empty bags of sawdust. They came, they went into a big hollow place, sawdust came off the wood that they'd been shaving, like... It was hard work, really hard work, yeah. They called it 'sawdust hole'. We stood on a plank emptying them. But I enjoyed it, you know. I'd worked at Terry's before that, and then when I got married and I was a widow, like, me mum and dad brought our Eric and Shirley up. I thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a good laugh."

When the men came back after the war, naturally they wanted their old jobs back. You can almost hear the regret, reading Nellie Nelson's printed words on the page, as she talks about having to give up her beloved porter's job.

"We were doing a man's job, like, and the men came back to work so there were no room for us then," she says.

Maybe not, just then. But even so, things would never be quite the same again...

  • Female Railway Workers in World War II by Susan Major is published by Pen & Sword, priced £19.99